Friday, December 19, 2014

Review of Book Titled "Onobrakpeya" by Richard Singletary

(Reviewed by Kunle Filani)
On a sunny day in Lagos, a group of street urchins who were
playing soccer suddenly looked at the direction of a human
figure walking towards them from a narrow alley
. One of them
intoned with a voice laden with obvious awesomeness
i" meaning "he is a white man". Really, the man walking with
a swagger was very light in comp
lexion, and his "whiteness"
was accentuated by the brightness of the sun which created a
faceting effect on his oily face
. The facade of imaging
gradually diminished with each step he took
, and by the time he
got to a closer range of view, it became ob
vious, who he was-
fair complexioned
, but a black man. With a flatulent remark,
the boy who earlier observed that the man was "Oyinbo" now
"Uh Eeyan ni" i.e "Oh, he is a person". They immediately
resumed their game with a tint of disappointment that matched
the windy pall of dust that beclouded the sky
If this story is interrogated, one will observe that the children obviously had more
respect for the white man they had imagined than the black man that eventually
. To them, the white man is an extra-ordinary person because they must
have been told and perhaps experienced the 'magic
' of the systematic
velopment of Western civilization; a civilization premised on progressive build-
up of ancient innovat
ions up to modem inventiveness, a triumph attained because
of the feat of documentation which made it possible to develop fully what their
progenitors initiated
It is this culture of documentation that we unfortunately lack in Africa, and the
lack-lustre growth rate of our development is certainly not because there is paucity
of knowledge and geniuses, but essentially because we are limited in knowing the
history of our heroes and stunted in researching their landmarks. This is what Dr.
Richard Singletary is trying to correct by celebrating the artistic feats of a reputable son
of Africa in the book titled ONOBRAKPEYA.
:                         ONOBRAKPEYA
Author:                       Dr. Richard Singletary
Publisher:                   The Ford Foundation and the Institute of Intemational
Year of Publication
: 2002 AD
Cover:                        Hardback (with folded paper cover)
Number of Chapters:                  Five chapters (apart from Preface and Conclusion)
Pages of Texts:           100
Pages of Figures:       69 (mostly colour photographs)

The Preface is a justification of the need to research on Contemporary African
, since it reflects the dynamics of change and continuity of ancient traditions.
The impact of change as reflected in form, context, content, and function is best
captured in the works of a renowned Nigerian artist
, Bruce Onobrakpeya, who
over the last four decades has proved his creative ingenuity and won several local
and international awards.
The comprehensive literature review, though inexhaustive, shows that Onobrakpeya and
his art of painting, and essentially printmaking have appeared in many publications such
as scholarly books, journals, catalogues, Masters/PhD dissertations, and several
newspaper reviews.
The methodology is mainly art historical with flashes of anthropological
approaches since his works are mainly inspired by the cultural ambience. The
structure is no doubt reflective of the dissertation format which was the basis for
the research ab-initio. 
CHAPTER ONE (Bruce Onobrakpeya): The Evolution of a Contemporary
African Artist)
This chapter focuses on Onobrakpeya's formative years, his schooling, with
special attention on his Zaria days between 1957 and 1961, where he studied Fine
Arts in the Nigerian College of Arts
, Science and Technology, Zaria. His
involvement in the Zaria Art Society which shaped his perspective as a professional artist is also noted
. It was at the dawn of Nigerian Independence in 1960 that Bruce Onobrakpeya began to experiment with forms in relation to Nigerian Folklores, myths, and legends.
A well referenced chapter, Onobrakpeya's professional practice is broadly
identified as The Post - Zaria Period
, and is classified into periods namely:- From
Painter to Printmaker (1962
- 1966), Experimental Period (1967 - 1979), and The
Consolidation Period (1980 to the present)
. His professional accomplishments are
detailed with the many exhibitions
, commissions, workshops, celebrations,
awards, and grants that cut across all continents of the world. The chapter is
properly illustrated with good photographs of his early works

CHAPTER TWO: (Ethnic Themes: Celebrating Nigeria's Cultural Diversity)
This is the most analytical chapter where a good number of prints which involve
photographs, plastocasts, copper metal foil relief, bronzed lino relief and lino
engravings are discussed from art historical and anthropological perspectives
. The
forms and contents of the works are analysed to fit into the ethnic themes that
project the diversity of Nigerian culture. Most prominent among the ethnic and
sub-ethnic groups that inspired Onobrakpeya's creativity are Urhobo (his own
homeland), Bini, Yomba
, Igbo, and Hausa - Fulani cultures. The intellectual
approach employed by the author makes the chapter very descriptive of the works,
with lucid thematic appreciation
. The chapter is also well illustrated with
luminous pictures of Onobrakpeya
's works.

CHAPTER THREE (National Themes: Promoting Unity in Diversity)
The author x-rays briefly, the political history of Nigeria as a nation, and pointed
out the need for harmonizing the fragile coalition of interests which often times
lead to ethnic sentiments and nepotism among the various cultural groups. He
focuses on the attempts made by Bruce Onobrakpeya to bring understanding
among her people by exploring nationalistic and peculiar mutual themes
. Motifs
from different cultural groups that were combined in "natural synthesis" are
identified and discussed within the context of cultural pluralism. A number of
photographs of prints are used as illustrations.

CHAPTER FOUR (Crossing Boundaries: From the Ethnic and the National to
the International)
The influx of western civilization and the resultant acculturation have all
coalesced to dislocate the old order in Nigeria
, thereby creating "hybrid traditions
that cut across national boundaries". The impact of change on Onobrakpeya and
his works are highlighted graphically in this chapter
. The most reflective theme of
the period is those with Christian subject matter
. Detailed reactions of people with
divergent views are copiously quoted in order to show how Nigerians and Christians
 viewed the admixture of African forms with naturalistic Western forms that constituted the style adopted by Onobrakpeya in executing the religious themes. This adaptation of local forms and motifs in rendering international themes gave Onobrakpeya's works a deserved universal appeal in spite of their Urhobo titles. Pictures of commissioned prints and paintings especially by the
Church are used to illustrate the chapter.

CHAPTER FIVE (Modernistic Impulses: Re-enactment and Celebration)
This chapter opens with the explanations of art historical terms such as "Modem
" and its derivatives, "Contemporary African art" and "Nigerian art". The terms
are situated within the context of history
, thereby highlighting how they affect the
development of art in contemporary Africa. Modem Art in Nigeria is traced to the
pioneering efforts of Aina Onabolu who excelled in "academic painting
". The
Zarianist efforts of the late 1950s which was later tagged an exploration in
"natural synthesis" is identified as the most significant impetus to the spread of art
in contemporary Nigeria
. Onobrakpeya is said to have synthesized modernistic
aesthetics with his own Nigerian heritage using improvised techniques.
Some of his works are further analyzed by exploring the use of lines, colours,
textures and other elements of design as integral part of his abstract compositions.

CONCLUSION (Critical Perspective of the Artist)
Onobrakpeya's cultural ideology and its manifestation on the works he produced
in almost five decades are critically reviewed
. The author brought out the
complex connotations of social and cultural aspects of realities as chronicled by
Onobrakpeya whose
ideas and philosophies are calculated to help upgrade and
uplift the life of the people
. Onobrakpeya's humane disposition is also mentioned.
He is described as a generous artist who is willing to share his scholarship
innovations and industry with students and colleagues. The book is richly and
copiously referenced with bibliographical data covering twelve pages
. The book
is closed with an enviable curriculum vitae of the famous Bruce Onobrakpeya; the
printmaker per excellence, a painter of repute
, a sublime poet, a teacher, an erudite
, a recipient of many awards and honours, and above all a humanist whose
munificence resounds all over the continents

A number of errata could be identified in the book. These include typographical
, repeated lines, incomplete figures (as listed), non-numbering of figures, and
other misprints
. It is hoped that these will be corrected in subsequent edition.
One would also have expected an index of names and topics that are referred to in
the book
. Perhaps a glossary of artistic terminologies, especially the innovative
experiments of Bruce Onobrakpeya
's materials and techniques such as araldite -
, plastograph, plastocast, lvorex, bronzed - lino etc. This would have
facilitated easy understanding of the new words
The revised edition may also consider a re-alignment of the preface with other
parts in order to lift the sequence of the book outside its dissertation structure

The author, Dr. Richard A. Singletary, is no doubt a scholar with penetrating
. His simple and lucid styles complement the visual images depicted by the
. He is a versatile artist whose musical training both as practitioner
and theorist manifests in his calculated balancing of structures. Dr
. Singletary's
multi-disciplinary approach to the study equally aided the depth of the research
and as an experienced individual, he was able to avoid histrionics in spite of his
closeness to the artist during the course of the research. His delibrate use of
" as the title of the book is symbolic and significant; reconciling a
Contemporary African artist with the genius of great European modernist artists
such as Picasso, Brancusi and Moore

In a period where the 'traditional art' of Africa is considered superior to the
contemporary art, where the modernist tendencies in Africa is regarded as mere
by- product of Western decadence, it becomes a singular success for Singletary to
dismiss such artistic subterfuge by coming out with a book that celebrates the
creative genius and technical sagacity of a reputable contemporary artist in person
of Bruce Onobrakpeya.

It is therefore with artistic pleasure and scholarly contentment that I recommended
this book to all culture enthusiasts, all scholars of culture, art historians and critics,
artists and art students all over the world to read and keep at least a copy of

Kunle Filani (MFA, PhD)
Artist, Critic & Historian
August, 2003